Monday, May 9, 2016

Brahms - Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Opus 26

Johannes Brahms was encouraged to travel from his hometown of Hamburg to Vienna by his friends Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim. They thought it was important for someone of Brahms' musical talent to go to the  music capital of German music to expand his horizons in the city where Beethoven and Schubert had lived.

So in 1862 when he was 29 years old, Brahms made the trip to Vienna and took with him two piano quartets that he had written in Hamburg; Quartet No. 1 In G Minor (opus 25) and Quartet No. 2 In A Major (opus 26).  The first piano quartet with its fiery Rondo alla Zingarese finale was an immediate success, while the more introspective second quartet was not as enthusiastically received. Brahms' music may have been a tough nut to crack for the ears of the Viennese listeners that had already turned rather conservative.   He was a composer that revered the composers of the past , but his melodic and harmonic language along with his structural style were quite new. But Brahms wrote in more traditional forms, and that fact was a harbinger of the split in music that was to happen a few years later.  Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz, the main figures in the New Music movement, wrote no chamber music or traditional symphonies, so Brahms by default became the leader of the opposing camp in what was to be called The War Of The Romantics.

Along with Beethoven, Franz Schubert was a major influence on Brahms' compositions.  Schubert was most known for his songs during his lifetime, but he left over 1,000 works in various forms after his death. His music was to become a great influence on many composers, including Brahms who made a study of some of Schubert's chamber music, especially the String Quintet In C Major that was written in 1828, the year of  Schubert's death.

Like Schubert's last works, Piano Quartet No. 2 In A Major, Opus 26 is one of Brahms' longest works and is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo - The movement begins with the solo piano playing the main theme:
This theme is passed to the strings before it is taken up again by the piano in a fortissimo dynamic that retains the lyricism of the theme while increasing the intensity. There are other themes in this exposition, the number depending on who is doing the listening. Throughout, the lyricism is maintained, similar to the unending melodies of Schubert's late works. The exposition is repeated, and then moves smoothly into the development section. Again, the lyricism prevails as Brahms takes the ear through an adventure of key changes while snatches of themes are expanded upon. The recapitulation brings back the themes in seamless transposing of keys. Fragments of the main theme play in the coda as the movement winds down until it ends in forte.

II. Poco Adagio - The only movement of this quartet that is not in sonata form is this one. it is in rondo form. All the strings are muted as the piano plays in a soft register. In what may have been a tribute to his mentor Robert Schumann who had died a few years before this work was written, piano arpeggios add to the expressive coloration of texture as the music drifts to the gentle ending where the arpeggios sweetly accentuate the long notes in the strings.

III. Scherzo: Poco Allegro - A unique movement as the scherzo and trio are both in sonata form. The trio is in D minor, and a novel effect is made by Brahms by the use of grace notes:
The scherzo is repeated and the chromatic arpeggios in the piano make a fitting close to the movement.

IV. Finale: Allegro - The first theme is accented off the beat, and has some elements of Gypsy music as the finale of the 1st quartet, but this time much less frantic. This movement is in sonata form mostly, but has elements of a rondo as well. The music continues in a lyrical vein until the intensity ramps up slightly for a fine finish to the quartet.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Röntgen - Cello Sonata No. 2 In A Minor, Opus 41

The list of teachers and acquaintances of Julius Röntgen reads like a who's who of 19th century classical music. He came from a family of musicians and showed tremendous natural musical ability early on. His father was a first violinist in the Gewendhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, and Julius' first piano teacher was Carl Reineke who was the music director of the orchestra. His talents were such that at age 14 he was invited to play for Franz Liszt in Wiemar.

While in Leipzig he became acquainted with Heinrich von Herzogenberg, and it was through him that he met Brahms. He also studied piano with Franz Lachner, the conductor and composer that was good friends with Franz Schubert. Röntgen became a professional pianist at 18, and eventually moved to Amsterdam where he worked to create the Amsterdam Conservatory as well as the Concertgebouw Orchestra. He was in demand as an accompanist for singers and instrumentalists and toured with two of his sons playing piano trios.

Pablo Casals
Röntgen retired from public life in 1924 and dedicated himself to composition, but he composed throughout his life. He had an inner drive to compose that began in 1864 when he was 9 years old, and wrote music  at every opportunity. His list of works is long (over 650 works with and without opus numbers) and covers all genres, but he is most well known for his chamber music. He wrote 18 various works for the combination of cello and piano during his life, beginning in 1872 with the first cello sonata, opus 3. He wrote his 2nd sonata for cello and piano in 1900.  Röntgen wrote some of the cello sonatas for Pablo Casals and also accompanied Casals in performances of them. Casals thought highly of Röntgen's cello sonatas and continued to play them long after the composers death in 1932.

Cello Sonata No. 2 In A Minor, Opus 41 is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro non troppo ed affettuoso - The sonata begins with an A minor theme that appears throughout the sonata.
The piano plays a restless accompaniment to this dark theme until it has a solo turn with the theme. Both instruments extend the theme until it plays directly into the second theme of the movement in C major:
This theme is echoed in the piano until the music shifts back to the darkness of the first theme. But the darkness doesn't last long, as the third theme appears:
After this brighter theme plays itself out, there is a short section that returns the mood to the beginning of the movement. These three themes constitute the exposition of the movement. The development section begins straightaway with the return of the first theme. A climax is reached as themes and fragments of themes weave in and out. The recapitulation section is collapsed within the development as there is no formal return of themes. A coda brings the movement to a hushed ending to a very poetic and individual type of sonata form.

II. Vivace, ma non troppo presto - Written in 6/8 time, this is a scherzo in all but name. It trips its way through music of lightness and humor, especially the slurred pizzicato notes in the cello. The first and third themes from the first movement make a brief appearance in altered form before the movement quickly ends.

III.  Adagio - The piano plays a chorale in full chords before the cello enters with an altered repeat of the first theme of the first movement. This theme and parts of it dominate the music of this movement as the chorale and theme intertwine and develop.

IV. Allegro agitato - The rhythm and movement of the first theme resembles the finale of Beethoven's Piano Sonata In D minor, opus 31, No. 2 'Tempest'.  The other themes of the movement take their turn with this one as Röntgen varies each one. The form is similar to the first movement, as the themes are worked out in a type of  development/recapitulation hybrid.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Handel - Keyboard Suite In B-flat Major HWV 434

Handel was known in his own time primarily as a composer of Italian operas and oratorios, but early in his career he wrote music for keyboard as well.  In 1720 he published a book of pieces for keyboard, with some of them probably being composed earlier than that date. It was a very popular set and went through two printings during his lifetime.

There were two other sets of keyboard pieces brought out by Handel's publisher in the 1730's, but these were done without the composer's permission. While the pieces of the first set were ordered by key into suites, the later two sets were more of a hodge-podge of pieces thrown together. The Suite In B-flat Major was included in one of the later sets, and is thought by musicologists to have been written early in Handel's career. The suite as published has a minuet that directly follows the suite. Some modern performances include it for tradition's sake, and some do not.

Prelude and Sonata -  Handel opens the suite with a prelude that is notated in block chords that sketch out the harmony of the beginning, middle and ending of the prelude. This is a good example of what a prelude's original purpose was, that is to warm up the fingers and test the tuning of the instrument. There is a good deal of leeway for the performer to how these block chords may be played (the direction 'arpeggio' appears over the chords):
After the opening blocked chords, Handel writes out the arpeggios according to his wishes until more block chords are reached at about the middle of the piece, when the arpeggios are once again written out. The final measures return to blocked chords and the prelude ends on a B-flat major triad. The part marked sonata begins immediately in a rapid tempo and consists of sections that are repeated at the beginning and ending of the sonata with a middle section that develops the material heard in the repeated sections that resembles a very early predecessor or sonata form. 

Air and variations - This is the same air used by Johannes Brahms in his Variations and Fugue On A Theme Of Handel.  There are five variations on Handel's decorated air in his original:
By simply varying the air with running sixteenth notes, Handel gives the impression of a kind of counterpoint as a repeated bottom notes alternate with a rising note in the same hand. 

Menuet - As mentioned, this menuet is not actually part of the suite, but came directly after the suite in the set. As the menuet is in G minor, the relative minor of B-flat, it began to be played as part of the suite:
It is a typical Handelian menuet, highly decorated with a gently flowing melody with a simple accompaniment.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Bach - French Suite No. 5 In G Major BWV 816

Many baroque era composers wrote suites of dances for keyboard. The elements contained in the baroque dance suite were inspired by actual dances, but by the time J.S. Bach wrote his dance suites they were no longer meant to be accompaniment for dancers, but for listening. Bach wrote three sets of dance suites with 6 suites in each set; the English Suites, Partitas, and French Suites.

The French Suites are thought by musicologists to have been written while Bach was Kappelmeister at the court at Cöthen between 1717 - 1723. Bach did not call these French suites. That is a name that came to be used after his death. Although many of the dances of the suite were popularized in France, the dances themselves came from different parts of Europe, so the suites are not particularly 'French' in style any more than his English Suites are 'English' in style. Later musicologists and editors kept up with the tradition of the names to help differentiate between the three sets of suites.

The standard baroque suite consisted of 4 dances, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. and could be augmented by other dance types of the era that could be inserted between the standard ones. French Suite No. 5 consists of seven movements, all of which are in binary form and the key of G major:

I. Allemande - Traditionally the first dance in a baroque suite, Allemande is the French translation of the word German. It is in common time and is in a moderately slow tempo. Bach's example here is in gentle, constantly moving sixteenth notes that weave in and out of the parts. As in all baroque music, ornamentation is part of the music, with some ornaments written in the music by the composer. But a performer of the time could also insert other ornaments in the music as long as it was not overdone and was in good taste  (a highly subjective thing that was most likely as overdone by some performers in that time as it is by some modern performers.)

II. Courante - A dance of French origin, the courante is a lively dance in triple time. The name itself means running, and this example does that in constant liveliness.

III. Sarabande - A dance of Spanish origin, it is also in triple meter. Thought to have evolved from a livelier (and some sources say an indecent) dance of the 16th century, the dance spread to France where it became a slow courtly dance. The lack of sustained tone of the harpsichord and the slow tempo of the sarabande, caused the sarabande to be more heavily decorated with ornaments to help fill out the music with sound.

IV. Gavotte - An addition to the standard suite, it is a danced of French origin that has four beats to the bar. It is moderate to somewhat faster in tempo, and begins on the 3rd beat of the first bar.

V. Bourrée - Another dance of French origin, it is written in 2 beats to the bar and is usually faster and livelier than the gavotte. It begins on the 2nd or downbeat of the first bar, and Bach's example is full of skips and jumps.

VI.  Loure - A slow dance of France, it was also known as the lente gigue, or slow jig. It is characterized by a dotted rhythm and is written in triple time, or as in Bach's example 6/4 time.

VII. Gigue - For the end of this suite Bach uses the last of the four basic dances, the Gigue or Jig, a dance of Irish/English origins. It is a lively dance, and Bach writes it in 12/16 time, which is a compound 2 in a bar meter. It is a 3-voice fugue and the subject is reeled off in sixteenth notes, 6 of them to each beat of the bar:
The subject is first heard in the soprano voice, then the alto, finally the bass. There are a few episodes and a final statement of the subject before the end of the first section, which is then repeated. Bach then turns the whole thing topsy-turvy in the second section as the subject is inverted and begins in the bass first:
After an episode, the inverted subject is played in the soprano. More episodes occur, and when the section reaches the end it too is repeated. It is a brilliant end to one of Bach's most familiar keyboard suites, one that balances enjoyable melodies with well-crafted counterpoint.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Debussy - Piano Trio In G Major

Most classical music lovers who have ever heard the name Nadezhda von Meck know it from her relationship with Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer. She gave Tchaikovsky financial support  so he could devote himself to composition. with an agreement that stipulated they never meet. This resulted in a remarkable exchange of letters (over 1,200 in thirteen years) in a long distant friendship that Tchaikovsky came to rely on for her intelligence and musically knowledgeable advice.

Nadezhda von Meck
Nadezhda von Meck was the widow of Karl von Meck, a German engineer who garnered a fortune by founding a network of railroads in Russia. When he died, eleven of their thirteen children were still at home, and Madam von Meck became devoted to them in the extreme. She maintained a huge household that included personal instruction for the children as well as a retinue of servants, governesses and house maintenance personnel. She would take the household to Italy every summer, and  the Paris Conservatoire of Music would send young students there for the summer to instruct and play music with her and her children. During the summer of 1880, an eighteen year old Claude Debussy was among the small group of students sent to Villa Oppenheim in Florence (now a hotel known as Villa Cora).

Debussy and other students would perform for the family every evening, and it was then thatDebussy's trio may ave been played. A letter from von Meck to Tchaikovsky mentions that Debussy was writing the trio, but there is no positive evidence that it was ever performed then. In fact, the trio may not have ever been performed in Debussy's lifetime. The work was not published until 1986 after the manuscript (which was considered lost) was found in 1982. Considerable editorial work was needed to piece it back together from various sources. The trio is in 4 movements;

Andantino con moto allegro - Debussy was still a student when he composed the trio and had very little training in composition, so while this movement can be thought of as in sonata form, it is a very loose and personal style of sonata form. It consists of attractive themes that are in the light weight salon style of the time. The beginning themes return towards the end in a kind of recapitulation, and the movement ends quietly.

Scherzo: Moderato con allegro - This movement shows more of what Debussy's style would become when he was a mature composer. The charm of the music is undeniable. The scherzo begins with a short introduction of pizzicato strings that alternate with the piano. The B minor theme itself begins with block chords in the piano. The graceful middle section is marked un poco piu lento and is in B major. The scherzo repeats and the movement ends quietly.

Andante espressivo - The piano sets the stage for the graceful theme that is first played by the cello and then by the violin. A slightly more turbulent middle section that includes some modulations into distant keys leads back to a repeat of the initial theme.

Finale: Appassionato - The final movement shows Debussy's inexperience in form (as does the entire trio) but the tunes are memorable throughout. His use of modulation may be a reflection of his knowledge of the music of Cesar Franck, a composer that showed considerable influence on young French composers at the time. Debussy was to go on to develop his own unique style of composition, but this piano trio is a pleasant listening experience despite his inexperience at the time.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Nos. 7-12

The etudes of Chopin and other piano composers of the 19th century owe a great deal to J.S. Bach, for the 48 preludes and fugues of The Well Tempered Clavier are in many ways models for them. Bach's works are not only meant to instruct (as are etudes in the broadest sense of the term, usually by highlighting a specific area of keyboard technique) but to give enjoyment to the player.  Bach said as much himself on the title page of The Well Tempered Clavier Book I:

...for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.

Many of the preludes of The Well Tempered Clavier are forerunners of the etudes of a later era, while the fugues are etudes of a specific kind themselves. No wonder that Chopin used Bach's music as a constant inspiration for composing as well as for warming up his hands (and mind) before playing the piano. 

Prelude and Fugue No. 7 in E-flat major BWV 852 -  The custom of pairing a prelude with a fugue began many years before Bach was active. The playing of an improvised prelude was twofold; to give the performer a chance to warm up his fingers and to set the home key of the fugue that was to come. Bach took this prelude playing tradition and enriched it. Prelude No. 7 of Book One is an excellent example of this, as it breaks the boundaries of tradition with a three-part form that includes a prelude, short fugue and a longer fugue.  The first section is in true prelude fashion and runs for ten measures:
This short section ends with a flourish and leads directly to the second section which consists of a short motive that is treated contrapuntally with numerous entrances until it dissolves into the third section, which is considered a fugue in itself.

Th 3-voice fugue proper is based on a short, perky two-measure subject that begins, circles around and ends on B-flat, the dominant of E-flat major, but the chord outlined in the figuration is E-flat major.:
The next two measures has the subject revolve around the note E-flat, which is the dominant note of A-flat major, which is in actuality the chord that the figuration outlines. Most of the material in this fugue is in keys closely related to the home key of E-flat, including  a short entry of the subject in C minor, the relative minor of the home key. The fugue ends with chromaticism and cadence.

Prelude In E-flat Minor, Fugue In D-sharp Minor No. 8 BWV 853 - Bach uses this prelude and fugue to show how the well-tempered keyboard can play in tune in keys containing many sharps or flats, something that was not possible with most other tunings. The prelude is in E-flat minor, a key that contains six flats:
The prelude begins with a bare E-flat minor triad. With rolled chords and modulations to B-flat minor and A-flat minor occur, and Bach's use of differing rhythms give this prelude a mood of reflection instead of sorrow. The mood brightens as the prelude ends in E-flat major.

The 3-voiced fugue is in D-sharp minor, a key with six sharps. The subject is about two and a half measures long, and it is truly the subject of this fugue as there is hardly much else going on besides the presentation and rehearing of the subject. Bach does create variety by varying the subject by inversion, augmentation and slight changes of rhythm.  
Prelude and Fugue No. 9 In E Major BWV 854 - The prelude is in a light polyphonic style and is short at only 24 measures:
After the opening section is played out, there is a central section of a slightly different character. The opening section returns and a short ending rounds out a prelude that has been described as pastoral.

The 3-voiced fugue has a terse subject of only a measure and a half in length:
Within a short span of time, Bach manages to state the subject many times and includes numerous episodes that do not contain the subject. This fugue creates a whirlwind effect that can be realized without playing it at an overly fast tempo.

Prelude and Fugue No. 10 In E Minor BWV 855 - This prelude is a reworking of a shorter prelude in the same key from The Notebook For Wilhelm Friedmann, a set of pieces for Bach's eldest son. It is in two parts, with the first part being an ornamented melody in the right hand accompanied by sixteenth notes in the left.

 This continues until roughly at the half way point the tempo increases to presto and the right hand changes to running sixteenth notes along with the left hand:
This presto section recalls a somewhat similar texture contained in the Prelude No. 2 In C Minor of Book I. The prelude continues in this way until the ending cadence in E major.

A rare example of a 2-voiced fugue, it begins with a subject that consists of two bars of running, chromatic sixteenth notes and ends with two eighth notes:
The nature of the subject and the two-voice structure hints that this needs to be played at a brisk tempo. The end of this fugue happen s quite suddenly, and is in E major.

Prelude and Fugue No. 11 In F Major BWV 856 - In the style of a two part invention, the opening parts for each hand reverse throughout this short prelude:
The 3-voiced fugue moves at a steady, somewhat rapid pace as the regular rhythmic pattern  of the subject makes it easy to follow with its many entrances.

Prelude and Fugue No. 12 In F Minor BWV 857 - The musical interpretation of Bach's music can be a problem, or an opportunity, as one sees things. This prelude is a case in point:
The quarter notes held in the right hand can be thought of as a melody and the sixteenth notes of the right hand an accompaniment, or the reverse can be done. and the bass notes can also be brought out as an integral part of the melodic content. Such are just a few of the possibilities within Bach's music. Whichever interpretation is decided upon will dictate the tempo of this prelude to a large extent.

The 4-voice fugue has subject of three measures:
The irregularity of a three-measure subject is glossed over somewhat by the answer of the subject in a much different rhythm of eighth and sixteenth notes. This makes the subject appear to be an ethereally slow one that gives a clue to the proper tempo of the fugue overall. This is the halfway point of Book I, and gives credence to the thought that Bach wrote the work as progressing in difficulty. Compare this prelude and fugue to the first one in C major, and it seems obvious. This fugue is complex, with different counter subjects and episodes with the subject and its slow pace weaving in and out of the musical texture.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Arensky - String Quartet No. 2 In A Minor, Op. 35

The music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky came to be a tremendous influence on Russian composers, but that wasn't always the case. Many of the more nationalistic composers within Russia regarded Tchaikovsky as too westernized in his compositional aesthetic. But Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer through and through who helped to integrate Russian music with the music of Europe. One of the younger Russian composers that held Tchaikovsky in high regard was Anton Arensky.

Arensky became a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory in 1882 and then met Tchaikovsky, who became a friend and mentor. After Tchaikovsky's death in 1893, Arensky wrote his String Quartet No. 2 In A Minor and dedicated it to the memory of his deceased friend.

This string quartet is unique in the literature, for instead of writing the work for the standard two violins, viola and cello, Arensky uses one violin, one viola and two cellos. This resulted in an increase in the depth of the sonority, something that Arensky used to convey the sadness over the death of Tchaikovsky. It is in 3 movements:

I. Moderato - The opening of the work makes good use of the second cello as a theme is played by muted strings that sound like a Russian Orthodox funeral chant. This theme is briefly extended before a second, gentler theme is played. The developmenet section has both themes elaborated on with many instances of slowing and then increasing the tempo which pushs and pulls the music. The recapitualtion works through the themes again in different keys until the openinig chant returns and the music fades away.

II. Variations On A Theme Of Tchaikovsky - The theme for this set of seven variations is taken from Tchaikovsky's 16 Songs For Children, Opus 54, No. 5 'Legend' :
Arensky retains the original key of E minor and the 8-bar tune is played by the violin. The seven variations run from slow and calm to rapid and scherzo-like with a few variations venturing quite far from the original. The mood turns somber once again as the second movement ends with a coda in quiet music remeniscent of the opening of the quartet.

III. Finale : Andante sustanuto. Allegro moderato - The third movement begins with a short introduction that keeps within the somber mood of the end of the second and first movements. This mood is broken by a Russian folksong played by the viola and used by Mussorgsky in his opera Boris Godounov and by Beethoven in his Rasumovsky Quartet Opus 59, No. 2:
The beginning theme of the movement returns briefly until the second theme whisks it away in a flurry of virtuosity as the short finale ends.